A Day for Humility

Nearing the end of the American War of Independence (1775–1783), British pastor John Newton gathered his church for a Wednesday meeting of repentance and humility. The Americans were winning the war, the British were losing their battles, and talk of war and politics dominated the news and the conversations of the day.

The situation was no time for Christian arrogance but for humility before God, Newton told his people. Here’s a little of what he said (on February 21, 1781):

We are a highly favored people, and have long enjoyed privileges which excite the admiration and envy of surrounding nations: and we are a sinful, ungrateful people; so that, when we compare the blessings and mercies we have received from the Lord, with our conduct towards him, it is to be feared we are no less concerned with the question in my text than Israel was of old [“Shall I not punish them for these things? declares the LORD, and shall I not avenge myself on a nation such as this?” (Jeremiah 5:29)]. This is the point I purpose to illustrate, as suitable to the design for which we are at this time professedly assembled.

Though the occasion will require me to take some notice of our public affairs, I mean not to amuse you with what is usually called a political discourse. The Bible is my system of politics. There I read, that the Lord reigns (Psalm 97:1); that he does what he pleases in the armies of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth (Daniel 4:35); that no wisdom, understanding, counsel, or power, can prevail without his blessing (Proverbs 21:30); that as righteousness exalteth a nation, so sin is the reproach, and will even totally be the ruin of any people (Proverbs 14:34).

From these, and other maxims of a like import, I am learning to be still, and to know that he is God. My part, as a minister of the Gospel of peace, is not to inflame, but, if possible, to soothe and sweeten the spirits of my hearers; to withdraw their attention from the instrumental and apparent causes of the calamities we feel or fear, and to fix it upon sin, as the original and proper cause of every other evil. As a peaceful and a loyal subject, I profess and inculcate obedience to the laws of my country, to which I conceive myself bound by the authority of God’s command, and by gratitude for the civil and religious liberty I possess.

For the rest, political disquisitions, except immediately connected with scriptural principles, appear to me improper for the pulpit at all times, and more especially unseasonable and indecent on a day of public humiliation. I hope we are now met, not to accuse others, but to confess our sins; not to justify ourselves, but to plead for mercy.

Source: John Newton, The Works of John Newton (Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1824), 5:140–141; in the 2015 BOT retypeset edition, 3:550.